In the Winter/Spring 2013 issue of Inroads, Brad Kempo published a rather spirited piece on the potential of technology to transform Canada’s democratic politics, claiming that electronic referendums (e-referendums), and to a lesser extent internet voting, could augment the scope of public participation to better inform crucial policy decisions.1 This push to supplement Canada’s increasingly “executive-oriented” decision making structures with a form of plebiscitarianism is not new, and has been pitched as a way to reduce the country’s lingering democratic deficit.

Mr. Kempo’s article raises the wider question of the efficacy of referendums per se. I contend that for all their promise, such political instruments manifest a number of serious limitations. Moreover, there is very little evidence that they actually improve the overall quality of democratic intercourse. The idea that referendums – whether of the traditional or high-tech variety – can complement representative democracy, promote voter education or allow constituents to make well-reasoned judgements remains fiercely contested. What we do know is that referendums can be used tactically to achieve certain political objectives, obscure highly complex and interrelated issues, and threaten the rights of minorities.

Let me elaborate. A good place to begin is to ask: what is the point of a referendum? Presumably, it is to extend real political power to voters to give legitimacy to chosen policy proposals and initiatives, and to empower citizens who feel they are making a genuine contribution to decisions that affect them, one not possible under our unresponsive current system of governance. Defenders of direct democracy aver that referendums have the potential to transform citizens from passive spectators into active participants. A noble endeavour to be sure, but are voters equipped to decide on profoundly complex political, economic and social issues and questions?

One of the more common reservations about referendums is the damaging impact that they can have on minority rights. Disguised as a sensible initiative, California’s 2008 referendum on same-sex marriage is an arresting case in point. Proposition 8 was a ballot initiative in the November 2008 election that asked voters to recognize the inviolability of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The proponents of Prop 8 won narrowly – 52 to 47 per cent. Though it has now been overturned, Proposition 8 should give us sufficient pause to consider the darker side of voter-approved ballot measures. Simply put, “democracy” can be deployed as a populist device to undermine the rights and freedoms of “out” groups. Should might now make right?

Another area of concern is the assumption that complex questions (and issues) can be resolved with a simple yes or no answer. Key political, economic, cultural and social decisions are never taken lightly. Parliamentarians are privileged in that they can bring considerable expertise to bear on important policy matters. They have the time, staff and committee access to more thoroughly examine matters like constitutional reform, fiscal redistribution, armed forces deployments and so on. Referendums focus on one issue, making it more difficult for voters to see the bigger picture. This is not to say that voters should simply succumb to the will and wisdom of governments. Elected officials should be held to account, but there are oversight frameworks already in place in many well-established democratic regimes. In Canada, for example, we have several “watchdogs” in the form of public and private broadcasters, agents of Parliament (e.g., the Auditor General, Parliamentary Budget Officer and Chief Electoral Officer) and advocacy associations.

There is also evidence that more voting can actually contribute to public disengagement. The experience of Switzerland is instructive. More democracy does not always encourage an “empowered” citizenry to get involved in the fine art of governance. In 2014 alone, Swiss voters were asked to voice their opinions on a number of strikingly divisive questions – 12 in all – that included whether to eliminate health insurance coverage for abortions, restrict immigration, procure new fighter aircraft and set a new national minimum wage standard. While proponents of direct democracy point to Switzerland as a model to emulate, they fail to note that over the course of these referendums turnout averaged only 53 per cent – in a country that has the worst overall voter turnout in the OECD (approximately 45 per cent since the 1980s).

Perhaps the most disquieting feature of such “bottom-up mechanisms” is the assumption that people will cast rationally based votes as opposed to emotional ones. The Charlottetown Accord in 1992 and British Columbia’s more recent plebiscite on the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) come immediately to mind. In these cases, objectors appear to have relied on what Plato might have described as their “gut instincts” to inform their decisions. The Charlottetown Accord was rejected because it was complex (i.e. difficult to understand) and because Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was unpopular. Furthermore, Canada was in the throes of a serious recession and voters in B.C. and Alberta simply disliked the idea of, what appeared to be acceding to Quebec’s “demands.”

B.C.’s referendum in 2011 on whether to retain or abandon the Harmonized Sales Tax also seemed to validate H.L. Mencken’s view that “democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.” Tax policy experts generally believed that had the HST survived it would have likely promoted greater economic growth – and therefore more tax revenue. A careful review of the evidence demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that the HST would have been good for the province’s taxpayers and tax system. Yet a large proportion of the “axe the tax” majority simply didn’t like the idea of a new tax and perceived the HST as little more than another cynical attempt by Victoria to expropriate “hard-earned” income. Many supporters of Premier Gordon Campbell also felt betrayed – especially after he promised not to introduce the tax in the lead-up to the 2009 election – and wanted to punish him for his change of heart. In all, it seems reasonable to conclude that the antitax petitioners’ enmity and bitterness deprived B.C. of an otherwise solid tax policy initiative.2

Of course, not all emotionally based decisions are wrong: our emotions do not always lead us astray. But there is good evidence that voters know far less than they think they do and are inclined toward information selectivity and cognitive dissonance, thus persisting in a belief despite the evidence.

Moreover, a significant number of Canadians continue to score poorly in tests of literacy and numeracy. Comparative data on the adult population’s ability to understand information from texts (such as editorials and news stories) and perform simple arithmetical tasks (such as balancing a cheque book or calculating a tip) confirms that Canada has a very real and acute literacy problem. Although we are widely considered a modern knowledge-based society, the OECD’s 2013 Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies highlighted some alarming trends. In the area of literacy, the results showed that the share of the population that scored below the desired Level 3 category had actually increased to 49 per cent – from 41 per cent in 2003. The Canadian Council on Learning calculates that low literacy skills in large metropolitan centres will remain virtually unchanged over the next 20 years – representing close to 50 per cent of Canadian citizens. If around half of eligible voters find it hard to estimate a tip or detect key points in a news article, how can they be expected to make well-reasoned decisions on issues related to taxation, health care, education or devolution?

Hence, while referendums may look appealing, they have the potential to disrupt or undermine needed complex policy initiatives and endanger minority rights. There are very few good reasons to feel confident that “the people” are appropriately qualified and suitably well informed to make sound political decisions. The opposite may very well be the case. Pursuing a course of participatory democracy is not a panacea for what currently ails Canada. Put differently, the “cure for democracy is not more democracy.”

Instead, Canada’s federal, provincial and local governments need to start placing a higher premium on civic responsibility and education. Alas, this will require some political will and a substantial reinvestment in institutions of higher learning and public education – two areas that have been deprioritized by Ottawa and many provincial governments. Genuine political engagement takes considerable time and energy and we should be sceptical of any measure that might very well reduce voters to a Pavlovian state of conditioned reflex. As a meaningful set of alternatives, eligible voters in Canada and elsewhere ought to be focusing on conventional means such as contacting legislative representatives, attending public meetings, volunteering at a local hospice – emphasizing the values of personal responsibility and citizenship. These experiences will likely be more enriching and rewarding, and create a stronger sense of community. They could also cultivate a greater sense of empowerment among those dedicated to making a difference.


1Brad Kempo, “Making Policy by E-referendum: Should Canada’s Political System be Overhauled to Incorporate 21st-Century Technologies?”, Inroads, Winter/Spring 2013, pp. 52–57.

2 See John Richards, “Tax Policy by Referendum: British Columbia’s Unharmonized Tax Reform,” Inroads, Winter/Spring 2013, pp. 78–87; Doug McArthur, “The Militantly Rational Voters of B.C.,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2013, pp. 110–112; and Tom Syer, “A Learning Experience for B.C.’s Democracy,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2013, pp. 113–117.